The Case for College Signing Days

On May 2, students in San Antonio, Texas will take part in an event that costs practically nothing, benefits the future of many, and brings joy to all. Schools everywhere would do well to take note, and consider doing likewise.

On that day, San Antonio will host its annual College Signing Day. More than 4,000 students will pack the University of Texas San Antonio Convocation Center, where they’ll sit according to their postsecondary school of choice, enjoying a bright spotlight on their college plans.

Younger students in San Antonio will no doubt take notice – because they’ll be participating in a week-long series of activities promoting college and career readiness at their middle and elementary schools.

It’s a simple and inexpensive way to celebrate our students, their accomplishments, and their futures.

As the President has made clear, the future of individual young people and of the economy as a whole depends on increasing the numbers of students who attend, and complete, college and other post-secondary training. A joyful event that helps to build a college-going culture can be part of that.

That’s why every district in America should consider having a College Signing Day to honor students who continue their education beyond high school. It’s something I wish I’d done during my time as CEO of Chicago Public Schools – and something that’s touched me emotionally when I’ve witnessed it.

Rural Berea, Kentucky is among the places showing the way. There, 150 students will celebrate their enrollment in two- and four-year colleges and universities this spring. On April 26, seniors will be joined by representatives from the colleges they will attend across Kentucky.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to be a part of YES College Prep’s College Signing Day in Houston. In the crowd of over 5,000 people, I was moved by the spirit that filled the room – a spirit that celebrated hard-fought accomplishments, and anticipated fulfilling futures. In that crowd, I saw hope for both individual students, and for our nation.


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

The effects of College Signing Day last longer than a two-hour assembly. The event can shift the focus of an entire student body from high school graduation to postsecondary commencement. It shows younger students that they can aspire to more than athletic greatness: they can be great academically, too. It shows them that academic excellence is just as worthy of cheers, shouts, and photo ops as athletic prowess.

President Obama offered a similar message in his recent State of the Union address when he celebrated first-generation college student Estiven Rodriguez, a high school senior bound for Dickinson College in the fall. Estiven – who accompanied the First Lady to President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address – spoke no English when he arrived in America at age 9.

But Estiven didn’t rest on his accomplishments – instead, he chose to pay it forward, helping his peers at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning Schools (WHEELS) with their postsecondary aspirations.

In December, he did something that touched his school, his community, and ultimately, his country. As the President said, “he led a march of his classmates – through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors – from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications.” The teens, wearing WHEELS sweatshirts and holding a banner, served as an example that few could forget.

All students overcome challenges – whether they’re language barriers or tough homework assignments – to graduate high school and gain admission to college. Hosting a College Signing Day is an easy way for schools to embrace these challenges, and the students who overcame them.

In today’s knowledge-based, global economy, a postsecondary degree or certificate is more important than ever. The first step for students, and for our nation, is college acceptance.

This year, let’s celebrate that first step – and all the steps to come.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Why I Wear 80

Graduation CapsWhen I take the court tonight for the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, I’ll be wearing a number that signifies some great news – thanks to the hard work of our nation’s students, parents, and educators.

The number I’ll wear – 80 – is rarely seen on a basketball jersey – but represents a record in education.

That number – 80 percent — is the newly announced high school graduation rate, the highest in American history. Never before have 4 out of 5 American students completed high school. We have further to go, but this is a moment to celebrate the hard work of our educators.

Often in sports, but rarely in education, do you hear about the heroes whose skill, hard work, creativity and tenacity resulted in an achievement the whole country should know about. We should all take heart from the passionate, caring work being done in classrooms, schools, and communities across the country.

Who’s to credit for this progress? Here, as elsewhere, you can be sure that the best ideas come from outside Washington, D.C. The best ideas come from teachers, principals, superintendents, and other educators who are determined to see their students succeed.

These ideas come from communities like Seattle, Wash., where Grover Cleveland High School was struggling just a few years ago. But Cleveland’s educators and students wouldn’t let the school fail.

photolockerWith federal grant funds and other reform dollars, Cleveland transformed from a traditional neighborhood high school to one that emphasized project-based learning, connected students with mentors in the surrounding community, and offered internships in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. School leaders and staff met every week and included parents, employers and other partners in designing a new approach to learning.

Cleveland seized the opportunity to innovate, and it worked. The school’s four-year-graduation rate rose from 60.5% in 2011 to 75% in 2013.  And in 2013, Cleveland was named a Washington State School of Distinction.

Elsewhere, in Tennessee and the District of Columbia, state and local leaders looked honestly at student underperformance – and did something about it. They raised standards, strengthened classroom instruction, and revamped systems for teacher support and evaluation.

At Cleveland – and at schools in states from Ohio to Texas – change was, and is, hard. It takes tenacity, compassion, and courage from both students and educators.

The 80 percent number – the graduation rate for the class of 2011* — represents not only the collective progress we’ve made as a nation, but individually as communities, schools, students, and families.

But I see 80 percent as a starting point. We have so much further to go – for the one in five students who don’t graduate; for the many who graduate less than fully prepared for college; and for the groups of students that, despite recent progress, are achieving and graduating at lower rates. The potential of American students is limitless – it’s on our schools, families and communities to help them achieve at higher levels.

All students should have the opportunity to achieve in high school and thrive in whatever career or college they pursue. We owe 100 percent of our students that chance.

Today, I’ll celebrate where we are, and recognize where we need to go.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

*2010-2011 Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate

Celebrating CTE Month

Aviation_High

Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (left), and Secretary Arne Duncan visit with Aviation High School students during a visit to the CTE-focused school in 2013. February is CTE Month.

In his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama called on the nation to make 2014 a year of action. He laid out a clear vision for promoting equality of opportunity and challenged everyone to go all-in on the innovations that will help this country maintain its edge in the global economy. “Here in America,” said the president, “our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That’s what drew our forebears here.  … Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.” The president also put heavy emphasis on career and technical education and training that prepares young people for work. “We’re working to redesign high schools,” he said, “and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career.”

February is Career and Technical Education (CTE) month—a great opportunity to acknowledge the important contribution CTE is making to individual citizens, our economy, and our nation. Every year, during this month, we recognize the efforts and accomplishments of the many students who are pursuing their ambitions through CTE pathways. We also thank all those working tirelessly so that more students can find their life’s passion and reach their full potential. Each day, thousands of teachers, school and district administrators, state education officials, career and technical student organization leaders, business and labor leaders, parents, and others are helping to equip students with the academic knowledge—as well as the technical and employability skills—they need to find productive careers and lead fulfilling lives.

Today’s CTE students and educators face a more difficult challenge than those of earlier generations, when a high school diploma and the skills it represented were enough to secure a place in the middle class. Those low-skilled, well-paid jobs are gone, and they won’t return. By working together, those at the local, state, and national levels are making significant progress in improving the rigor and relevance of CTE programs all across America.

In the 21st century, we need to prepare all students to succeed in a competitive global economy, a knowledge-based society, and a hyper-connected digital world. All students must be lifelong learners, able to re-skill frequently over the course of their careers, in order to meet the changing demands of the workplace and the marketplace. They’ll need the flexibility and ingenuity to thrive in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet! Teaching and learning must change, in part, because the very nature of work has changed. President Obama’s North Star goal in education is for every student to graduate from high school and obtain some form of postsecondary training or degree.

High-quality CTE is absolutely critical to meeting this challenge. Inspiring CTE teachers and effective curricula are essential to ensuring that students can master the new realities and seize the amazing new opportunities that await them.

The president and I believe that high-quality CTE programs are a vital strategy for helping our diverse students complete their secondary and postsecondary studies. In fact, by implementing dual enrollment and early college models, a growing number of CTE pathways are helping students to fast-track their college degrees.

CTE programs provide instruction that is hands-on and engaging, as well as rigorous and relevant. Many of them are helping to connect students with the high-demand science, technology, engineering and math fields – where so many good jobs are waiting.

In visiting CTE programs across the country, I’ve seen many excellent examples of partnerships that are providing great skills and bright futures for students. Our challenge is to replicate these successful programs so they become the norm—especially in communities that serve our most disadvantaged students. This administration’s goal is to prepare students to excel in college, in long-term occupational skills training, in registered apprenticeships, and in employment.

The president’s 2014 budget proposal includes both continuing and new funding to support this agenda. In addition to refunding the Perkins Act at roughly $1 billion, the Department of Labor will complete providing approximately $2 billion in Trade Adjustment Act funds over four years for CTE partnerships led by the nation’s community colleges. And, in November, the president announced a new $100 million initiative between the departments of Labor and Education to fund Youth CareerConnect grants.

Youth CareerConnect will encourage school districts, higher education institutions, the workforce investment system, and other partners to scale up evidence-based models that transform the U.S. high school experience. Best of all, with this grant program, we can plan on making awards early this year.

In celebrating CTE month, we celebrate all the partners—students, parents, business, union and community leaders, educators all through the pipeline, and many more—who are helping to transform CTE and achieve our shared vision of educational excellence and opportunity for all students. At the Department of Education, we’re proud to be your partner.

Together, we can make the year ahead a time of bold, smart, far-reaching action.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Behind Progress, Common Sense and Courage

This op-ed appeared in the January 23, 2014 edition of the Washington Post.

In education, it sometimes takes courage to do what ought to be common sense.

That’s a key lesson from several recent national and international assessments of U.S. education. These include the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card; a new version of the NAEP focused on large, urban districts; and the international rankings in the tri-annual PISA test.

Collectively, these assessments demonstrate extraordinary progress in the places where leaders have worked hardest and most consistently to bring change — but also a national failure to make nearly enough progress to keep up with our competitors.

Duncan at PISA

Secretary Duncan received feedback from students during last month’s PISA release.

Nationwide, students made modest progress in reading and math in 2013, with achievement edging up to record highs for fourth- and eighth-graders, the NAEP found.

Nearly every state has adopted higher academic standards, and most states have instituted new systems of teacher support and evaluation. It’s a testament to hardworking educators that they are implementing these changes and raising student performance at the same time.

But as the international PISA results demonstrate, our progress isn’t enough. Other countries are leapfrogging us at a time when education is vital to economic health in a global competition for jobs and innovation. Among the 65 countries and education systems that participate in PISA, the United States was surpassed by 27 in math and 14 in reading . That’s unacceptable.

We can learn, however, from some of the standouts. In contrast to a national picture of gradual progress, Tennessee and the District of Columbia reported striking jumps — in both math and reading achievement and in both grades examined, fourth and eighth.

We don’t know all the reasons why students did better in Tennessee and the District in 2013 than in 2011. But it is clear that they shared a similar approach to bettering education — taking common-sense, but politically hard, steps to help students. Both are places where vulnerable students predominate; 73 percent of District students and 55 percent of Tennessee students are sufficiently needy to qualify for reduced-price meals.

There are important lessons here. What these two places also had in common was a succession of leaders who told educators, parents and the public the truth about educational underperformance and who worked closely with educators to bring about real changes. They pushed hard to raise expectations for students, even though a lower bar would have made everyone look better. And they remained committed to doing the right thing for children, even when it meant crossing partisan lines or challenging ideological orthodoxy.

To meet those higher standards, these leaders invested in strengthening the quality of classroom instruction and revamping systems for teacher support and evaluation. They ensured that teachers could use good data from multiple sources to identify learning gaps and improve instruction. They also sought ongoing feedback from educators and others.

These concepts — developing and supporting the people who do the most important work, using data to inform improvement — are what strong organizations do.

Yet these common-sense steps took uncommon courage. Tennessee had previously set one of the lowest bars in the country for proficiency in reading and math. The resulting proficiency rates — 91 percent in math and 92 percent in reading — were a lie. By raising standards, Tennessee’s leaders forced the public, parents and politicians to confront brutal facts.

When Tennessee raised its standards in 2010, the proportion of students rated proficient dropped to 34 percent in math and 45 percent in reading. But in a bipartisan act of courage, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stayed true to the reforms begun under Democrat Phil Bredesen. They refused to dumb down standards to try to make Tennessee students look better.

Were students actually doing worse? No. For the first time, the state was telling the truth.

Just as important, leaders in the District and Tennessee worked with educators to transform industrial-era systems of support and evaluation for teachers and principals that had little or no link to teachers’ impact on student learning. That meant continuing the work of political predecessors, as Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson did in the District.

Building better systems that take account of educators’ impact on learning is complex and controversial work. Yet in Tennessee and the District, leaders solicited input from their critics, stayed committed but flexible and delivered systems that help both successful and struggling teachers.

I’m cautious about drawing big conclusions from a two-year trend, and it’s important to track a variety of educational outcomes, such as high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Even so, the experiences of Tennessee and the District suggest that children win when leaders work closely with educators to do several vital things right, at the same time, and don’t give up when the going gets tough.

As Henderson said: “When you concentrate on teacher quality, you get results. When you radically increase the level of academic rigor, you get results.”

To be clear, no one in Tennessee or the District is declaring victory. Students in both places have a lot further to go to close achievement gaps and even to reach the level of top-performing states. But their progress shouldn’t be treated as mysterious or miraculous.

The changes America’s children need to get a better education require political courage and hard work. But in many cases the steps are surprisingly straightforward — and can be taken anywhere.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Education Datapalooza

Duncan at Education DatapaloozaYesterday I participated in an Education Datapalooza hosted by the White House and U.S. Department of Education.  More than 600 people packed into an auditorium to discuss innovation in higher education—and what I heard and saw makes me excited for the future! The gathering was a response to President Obama’s call this past August to improve value and affordability in postsecondary education, in which he outlined an ambitious plan that included a major focus on innovation.  As part of his call to action, the President and the First Lady are speaking today about the importance of ensuring that every child, rich or poor, has the opportunity to access a quality college education.

At the Education Datapalooza, we gathered to celebrate innovative products, apps, websites, and other tools to help students get to and through postsecondary education. Many of the tools help students and families navigate the college choice and selection process. Others focus on improving teaching and learning, especially in ways that leverage technology to improve online and classroom-based instruction.

Events like this one are exciting because they bring together so many different people from different backgrounds and experiences. The event featured entrepreneurs and software developers, along with researchers in the fields of college access and learning. It also featured students, who taught college guidance counselors how to use the latest mobile apps so that they could refer other students to them, along with policymakers and representatives of non-profits that represent student voices. Video of the day will be posted soon here: www.ed.gov/datapalooza.

Duncan at DatapaloozaPart of Datapalooza was an innovation showcase, at which more than fifty organizations participated by giving live product demonstrations of their tools to empower students and families to make informed decisions about college—and improve teaching and learning. Among the participants were several teams that began developing their tools only a few weeks prior, as part of the Data Jams hosted by the White House and Department of Education to catalyze innovation. I got a chance to walk through the innovation showcase and meet with the entrepreneurs and student advocates who are developing new tools. The energy and excitement in the room was tremendous.

Many of the tools and apps developed, use open data provided by the Department of Education and other federal sources. In the past, even data that was free to the public was often difficult to find and use. Knowing that it is critical to innovation, President Obama signed an Executive Order last May directing agencies to make government-held data more accessible to the public and to entrepreneurs. Building on the Executive Order, the Department of Education announced a new public data inventory that went live in December.

And yesterday, we announced our intention to issue a Request for Information (RFI) to gather ideas and feedback on potential development of Application Program Interfaces (APIs) with key education data, programs, and frequently used forms—including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). APIs offer the potential for developers to interact with these federal resources in new ways, including developing apps or services that benefit students and consumers.

While Datapalooza was the culmination of months of hard work by entrepreneurs and college experts, it is also just the beginning of a wider conversation. In the weeks and months ahead, the Administration will continue outreach to the community seeking to catalyze innovation. We value your input, so please send your ideas to Datapalooza@ed.gov.  We hope to engage those who participated in Datapalooza and others who are committed to promoting opportunity for American students.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Looking Back at 5 Memorable School Visits of 2013

Bret Tarver

Secretary Arne Duncan received a daily weather forecast from students during his visit to Bret Tarver Education Complex in Phoenix.

I visit a lot of schools each year, and it is probably the greatest highlight of my job. Getting out of Washington and into classrooms provides me with the opportunity to talk with students, teachers, parents, and college leaders on what is working and what we still need to accomplish. Their voices are the driving force behind improving education in our country.

In 2013, I visited my 49th state as Secretary of Education, and with each classroom and school visit I walk away with meaningful and memorable lessons. As 2014 gets underway, now is a good time to reflect on 2013, and particularly on five schools that left a lasting impression.

  1. Columbus Elementary, Columbus, N.M.
Columbus

Secretary Duncan speaks with a Columbus Elementary School student on a bus ride to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Columbus Elementary, situated just a few miles from the Mexico border is unlike any school I have visited before. Of the approximately 700 students, from Pre-K to 5th Grade, roughly 400 students wake up before the sun rises to cross the border for school each day. All the students are U.S. citizens and during the afternoon bus ride back to the border, listening to their stories inspired me.

The experience shed new light on educational challenges and youthful grit—not to mention a need to fix our broken immigration system that affects even our youngest learners. Read more about my visit to Columbus during our annual back-to-school bus tour.

  1. Macomb Community College, Warren, Mich.

Community colleges have never been more important. They are the cornerstones that will help us build the best-educated, most competitive workforces in the world. Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., is a shining example of a community college that is providing students with an affordable high-quality education that meets the needs of local employers.

Macomb inspired me and my hope is that more community colleges will follow suit and become regional economic engines. Read more about my December visit to Macomb.

  1. Northwest Middle School, Salt Lake City, Utah

After years of struggling, Northwest Middle School is now ranked number one in its district and is making exciting progress with the help of a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the Department of Education.

During my recent visit I received candid feedback from the students, parents, and teachers about the challenges the school has overcome and the work that lies ahead. Like all turnaround successes, I am hopeful members of this school community will continue to share their successes with school leaders across the country. Read more about my December visit to Northwest.

  1. Ecole St. Jean de Dieu, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

    Haiti

    Secretary Duncan speaks with community members outside of Ecole St. Jean de Dieu in Haiti.

The first school we visited during a recent trip to Haiti was Ecole St. Jean de Dieu. The school is part of the Haitian Minister of Education’s initiative to promote access for vulnerable school-aged children who are outside of the education system.  Most of the students at this school are homeless and live on the streets during the day but attend classes in the afternoons.  

Set in one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods, the school’s bare walls and dusty classrooms were filled with bright-eyed students and commanding teachers. The students that attended this school, many lost parents or guardians in the earthquake and are trying to get a basic education to hopefully live a productive life on their own. I was inspired to see their commitment to receiving an education and working towards a better life. Read more about my trip to Haiti.

  1. Bret Tarver Early Education Complex, Phoenix, Ariz.

The Bret Tarver Education Complex in Phoenix was a vivid reminder of not just the importance of high-quality pre-k but the need to expand it. The staff at this preschool facility is doing a tremendous job of serving over 300 kids in the community, yet another 200+ remain on a waitlist.

It is encouraging to see Arizona make such a crucial investment in our children, but more than a few lucky children deserve a high-quality pre-k experience like the one offered at Bret Tarver. If we plan to meet the long-term educational challenges, we must place greater emphasis on what happens to children during their most formative years from birth to the early grades, and make high-quality early learning available to all students. Read more about my September visit to Bret Tarver.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of Education

Students in Large Cities Make Progress

America’s big cities have long been beacons of promise and opportunity. Yet too often, big-city school systems have failed to equalize educational opportunity or truly prepare our young people to compete in a knowledge-based, global economy.  In large cities, more than a third of all teens fail to graduate on time, and high school dropouts have few opportunities as adults to find rewarding work to sustain a family.

That’s why the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s new study, examining educational performance in big cities, are encouraging.

Math GraphicToday, the National Assessment Governing Board released the results of the 2013 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA). It found that student performance in large cities continues to improve overall, and that large-city schools nationwide are improving at a faster pace than the nation as a whole.

That progress is welcome, especially since large-city districts typically have higher concentrations of Black or Hispanic students, low-income students, and English language learners than the nation as a whole.

To be clear, a lot of work lies ahead to close achievement gaps in our largest cities. But here’s the good news: in 2013, tens of thousands of additional students in large cities are Proficient or above in math and reading than was the case four years earlier. And three districts that pressed ahead with ambitious reforms — the DC Public Schools System (DCPS), Los Angeles, and Fresno — made notable progress since 2011.

In comparison to 2009, 44,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 4th grade math in large cities in 2013; 34,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 4th grade reading; 20,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 8th grade math; and 28,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 8th grade reading.

This progress is a credit to the hard work of teachers, principals, other school staff members, parents, and students themselves.

Signs of progress on the TUDA are especially compelling because they cannot be attributed to teaching to the test or testing irregularities, such as cheating.

DCPS students made substantial gains in both fourth and eighth grade in reading and mathematics. And students in Los Angeles and Fresno—two of the CORE districts participating in district-based waivers to the No Child Left Behind Law–also made notable progress since 2011.

Fresno was the only district in the TUDA to report a significant decrease in the achievement gap in math and reading (in eighth grade) from 2009 to 2013 between students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch programs and better-off students, who didn’t qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch.

The spoiler in this picture of slow and steady progress is the failure to meaningfully close racial achievement gaps in our large-city schools nationwide since 2009. Tens of thousands of students still lack the opportunities they deserve—and that opportunity gap is painfully at odds with the promise of equal opportunity in America.

Yet the TUDA results also tell us that leadership, vision, and a commitment to get better matter tremendously in big-city school districts.

A large performance gap persists between students in higher-performing cities, like Charlotte, Hillsborough County, and Austin, and students in Detroit and Cleveland, the two lowest-performing districts.

Those city-to-city gaps in performance provide a great opportunity for lower-performing districts to learn from higher-performing districts–and for districts where performance has stagnated to learn from rapidly-improving districts, like the District of Columbia Public School system.

I’m encouraged by the progress students overall are making in big cities. But it is time now to dramatically accelerate the pace of progress, not just in our big cities but in our nation as a whole. An opportunity for a world-class education should be the birthright of every student, no matter what their zip code.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Enabling the Future of Learning

Cross-posted from the White House Blog

I can’t predict the future, but as I wrote back in July, I can say that learning in the future ought to be more personalized. Teachers should have up-to-the minute information that will help them tailor instruction for each student. They should be able to connect and collaborate with other teachers to tackle common challenges and develop solutions. No matter where they are located, students should have access to world-class resources and experts that can enrich a learning experience that is largely designed just for them. And parents should be able to follow their child’s activities and progress almost in real-time, helping them stay more engaged in their child’s education.

This is an exciting future, and for some districts and schools across the country, that future is now.

Today the Department of Education announced the second round of grantees in the Race to the Top-District (RTT-D) competition. (Five winners, representing 25 districts, won a total of $120 million in grant funds.) These grants will support locally developed plans to personalize and improve student learning, directly increase student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student for success in college and careers. Through these grants, innovative school districts will be able to better support teachers and students by increasing educational opportunities through more personalized learning.

President Obama described the promise of personalized learning when he launched the ConnectED initiative last June. Technology is a powerful tool that helps create robust personalized learning environments, but unfortunately, too many of our schools cannot support such environments. ConnectED is about establishing the building blocks for nearly every school to achieve this vision—by boosting broadband speeds through a modernized E-rate program, working to make learning devices and quality content available to all students, and ensuring that teachers have the support and professional development resources they need as they transition to a digital world.

This year’s RTT-D grantees exemplify the types of opportunities created by personalizing learning environments supported by technology. Indeed, most of the districts that won funding represent rural, remote, or small town communities, and their plans show that technology can be a powerful equalizer for schools in such communities. For example:

  • Technology as a tool for teachers and students. Clarendon County School District Two in South Carolina (leading a consortium of four districts) will make personal learning devices like laptops and tablets available to all students in the Carolina Consortium for Enterprise Learning. Teachers will have digital tools to help them differentiate instruction and share standards-aligned materials and assessments.
  • Professional learning communities. Clarksdale Municipal School District in Mississippi will train teachers to become facilitators of instruction and to learn from and support one another through professional learning communities.
  • Continuous improvement. Houston Independent School District in Texas will implement a continuous improvement cycle to measure and support teacher effectiveness and will partner with an external evaluator to provide ongoing feedback to the district on program implementation.
  • Accessible data systems that support instruction. The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (a consortium of eighteen rural districts) will create and implement data systems that measure student growth and success and that help teachers improve instruction.
  • Helping close the digital divide through community access to technology. Springdale School District in Arkansas will expand parent access to technology through school-based and community “hot spots” along with community liaisons with computer access.

It’s clear that much of the innovative work by the districts in this year’s and last year’s RTT-D grantees requires a robust technology infrastructure. And in order for more districts to embrace a future of personalized learning, we must work urgently to meet our ConnectED goals. That future is waiting, but it’s up to us to make it a reality.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, fixing our broken immigration system is a win-win. Immigration reform is not only good policy, but it is good politics, and the individuals Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and I met today near the U.S. Capitol Building reinforced the need to act.  These brave immigration reform supporters have been fasting without food since November 12, to call attention to the human suffering caused by our broken immigration system.

Fast for Families is an organization of faith-based, immigrant rights and labor leaders who came together, calling on Congress to take action toward needed, sensible immigration reform legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship.
Some fasters like veteran immigration reform advocate Eliseo Medina, who after doctor’s orders ended his 22-day fast, have relayed their fast to other immigration reform supporters including members of congress. Others like Rudy Lopez, one of the fasters I met today, has completed 21 days of fasting and vows to continue to protest and fast.  “We love this country; we are proud Americans and aspiring Americas,” said Rudy.

“I want to live in a country where the words ‘justice’ and ‘opportunity’ actually mean something,” said another faster. As I was sitting there with Eliseo, Rudy and other fasters who have friends and families who would directly benefit from immigration legislation, I couldn’t help but to think about the many students across this country who inspired the drafting of the DREAM Act. They continued to share stories of hundreds of people dying in our deserts each year trying to cross the borders as undocumented immigrants.

And I was reminded about one of the most poignant days I’ve experienced in my tenure as Secretary.  In September, I spent a day in Columbus, New Mexico – situated right on our border with Mexico. There, children born in an American hospital to Mexican parents cross the border every day to go to school, sometimes rising before dawn to make sure they arrive to class on time.

The Columbus community has welcomed them for more than 60 years, and despite the journey those American children have to take every day, Columbus Elementary School has near-perfect attendance. Much like the fasters I met today, I saw in both the students and educators in Columbus that same dedication and that profound understanding of the importance of educational opportunity. It is something I will never forget.

If lawmakers in Washington took some time to visit the Fast for Families tent or the Columbus, New Mexico, community, I have no doubt that partisan politics regarding this particular issue would dissolve. We need legislators to work together to reform immigration, so families who just want to have a better life and contribute to America’s economy can do so, together.

The Obama Administration remains committed to working hard to achieve commonsense immigration reform. We have already taken unprecedented efforts to transform the immigration enforcement system into one that focuses on public safety, border security and the integrity of our immigration system through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But we know that DACA doesn’t reach everyone; the only permanent solution is for Congress to pass immigration legislation.

I am very inspired by the commitment and passion of these fasters and the Fast for Families’ goal to continue this hard work until comprehensive immigration reform is indeed a reality. I also remain encouraged by the undocumented students I have met – many of whom have been in this country since they were young children and consider America their home – who just want the opportunity to go to college or serve in the armed forces.

I join the fasters in a call to Congress to pass commonsense immigration reform. I hope that their mission can be fueled by the words of Nelson Mandela, an exemplary leader so present in my mind today: “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

A Matter of Shared Responsibility

In 1985, 14-year-old Ryan White and his family successfully battled myths and hysteria about HIV and AIDS so that he could attend his public middle school. In light of the observation of World AIDS Day this past Sunday, it is useful to reflect on how much has improved over the past three decades when it comes to ensuring people with HIV/AIDS equal access to education. But it’s also important to acknowledge the work still to be done.

World_Aids_Day_RibbonApproximately 636,000 people in the United States with an AIDS diagnosis have died since the epidemic began. As we strive for a world free of HIV/AIDS, we cannot forget those who are currently living with it. More than 11,000 school-age children in the United States are currently living with a diagnosis of HIV infection or AIDS, as are almost 30,000 young adults (ages 20-24). This disease crosses all socio-economic strata and is not limited to a particular region or zip code in this nation.  HIV/AIDS can afflict individuals of every race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and age. We as a community must band together to address any myths, misconceptions, stereotypes, and to eliminate discriminatory behavior concerning people with HIV/AIDS.

Most schools have embraced a spirit of inclusion and non-discrimination that allows students with HIV/AIDS to participate equitably in classrooms and extracurricular activities. In some schools, however, myths and fears about HIV/AIDS can still lead to exclusion, discrimination, and bullying. In those instances, schools must be reminded in no uncertain terms that it is illegal under federal civil rights laws enforced by the Department to prohibit a student with HIV/AIDS from attending school or to permit harassment of a student because he or she has, or is regarded as having, HIV/AIDS.

Here are some of the ways you can make a difference:

  • Learn the facts about HIV/AIDS, how it is spread and how it isn’t. Find resources and organizations near where you live and help share this information with your fellow community members.
  • Arm students, parents, teachers, administrators, and families with tools to stop bullying in schools, including bullying and against students with HIV/AIDS.
  • Review the Department’s guidance documents  that address when harassment on the basis of disability, including HIV/AIDS, can violate the civil rights laws.
  • Understand that students who are living with HIV/AIDS, are regarded as such, or are associated with others living with HIV/AIDS (such as parents, guardians, and other family members), are protected from discrimination under federal civil rights laws including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Let’s continue to educate ourselves and others about HIV/AIDS. Let’s renew our commitment to support our colleagues, classmates, friends, and neighbors living with HIV/AIDS.  Our actions can make a big difference. We owe those living with this disease, and ourselves, no less.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

High Standards for All Schools and Students, Everywhere

We have a tendency in our fast-moving world to focus on controversial-sounding soundbites, instead of the complex policy debates that underlie them. Unfortunately, I recently played into that dynamic. A few days ago, in a discussion with state education chiefs, I used some clumsy phrasing that I regret – particularly because it distracted from an important conversation about how to better prepare all of America’s students for success.

In talking about the importance of communicating about higher learning standards, I singled out one group of parents when my aim was to say that we need to communicate better to all groups – especially those that haven’t been well reached in this conversation. I have not been shy in letting the country know the enormous value of the state-led movement to prepare young people for college and careers. My goal was to urge elected leaders and educators to be more vigorous in making that case, too, particularly when recent polling shows that a majority of Americans may not even know what these higher standards are.

More rigorous standards for what students should know and be able to do have the potential to drive much-needed improvements in America’s classrooms. The state-created standards known as the Common Core are widely supported by teachers—three-quarters of whom have said in surveys that higher standards will improve instruction—and by leaders from both sides of the aisle. Republican Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas, has written, “From an economic and workforce development perspective, these standards are critical.” Democratic Governor Jack Markell of Delaware has said these standards emphasize “the ability of our next generation of workers – your kids, our kids – to apply lessons learned in the classroom to real-world situations.”

I want to encourage a difficult conversation and challenge the underlying assumption that when we talk about the need to improve our nation’s schools, we are talking only about poor minority students in inner cities.

This is simply not true. Research demonstrates that as a country, every demographic group has room for improvement. Raising standards has come with challenging news in a variety of places; scores have dropped as a result of a more realistic assessment of students’ knowledge and skills.

Every parent wants the best for their children. Every parent deserves accurate information about how their kids are doing in school. And every community can be doing more to challenge all its students and bring out their individual brilliance.

As a parent of two children in public school, I know no one enjoys hearing tough news from school, but we need the truth – and we need to act on it. The truth is we should be frustrated that as students, parents, and citizens, we’ve been hiding the educational reality, particularly as other countries are rapidly passing us by in preparing their students for today and tomorrow’s economy. However, we should use this passion to say that the status quo is not acceptable and that we want more for all students.

Good communication matters, because the transition to higher standards isn’t easy. While the work of implementing reform is absolutely challenging, it’s time to come together to do what’s necessary to provide all our students the educational opportunities they truly deserve.

Let’s get back to that conversation, because it’s an important one for our country.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Inspiration and Heartbreak – My Two Days in Haiti

Secretary Duncan in Haitian ClassroomSeveral months ago, Vanneur Pierre, Haitian Minister of National Education and Vocational Training, invited me to visit his country and see firsthand a glimpse into the Haitian education system.  Since the devastating earthquake hit in 2010 the U.S. Government has pledged its support as Haiti seeks to rebuild its economy and infrastructure, including its education system.  The two days I spent in Haiti were inspiring and heartbreaking.  From a school that is educating kids that live on the streets during the day to a hundred children crammed into a 7th grade classroom, the thirst and hunger for learning was incredible.

Along with visiting three schools, I had the opportunity to join USAID Associate Administrator Mark Feierstein and Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack to announce a multi-million dollar program in Haiti for USAID’s Room to Learn. This program will help to support equitable access for vulnerable children.

Each school we visited, while lacking modern amenities was full of an entrepreneurial spirit and will to learn. The school buildings were unlike anything we could imagine in this country.  Most were semi-outdoor structures with little or no electricity and stark dusty walls with paint generations old. No fancy gyms, libraries or cafeterias to see, only brick, mortar and gravel to make up the landscape. Each student sat at a desk or on a bench attentively looking towards the front of the room.  Classroom after classroom, student after student, each was focused on the lesson plan of the day.  When the teacher spoke, you could hear a pin drop.

Duncan Playing BasketballThe first school we visited was Ecole St. Jean de Dieu, which is part of the Minister’s initiative to promote access for vulnerable school-aged children who are outside of the education system.  Most of the students at this school are homeless and live on the streets during the day but attend classes in the afternoons.  I met 16 year olds who were in the second grade, far behind where they should be but trying to get an education to build a better life.

While traveling through Haiti I also had the opportunity to visit the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP) program which provides university scholarships in Haiti for straight-A students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One student, overcome by her past, cried as she told me about her life’s journey.   I sat and listened to the passionate and personal stories of students in this program discussed how their world was changed as a result of the opportunity to continue their education.

I visited another school, Ecole Nationale de Tabarre, an outdoor set of buildings, where I witnessed students reading books in their native tongue of creole donated by USAID’s read to learn program to make education more accessible for all children.  From there we went to Lycee de Petionville, one of Haiti’s model high schools.  I saw a classroom of over 100 7th graders packed into a room built for 30-40.  After visiting some classrooms, I joined the basketball team for a brief scrimmage in the school’s cement courtyard and basketball court.  It was a remarkable sight to see, two and three stories up an entire school looking down on the court.

The future of Haiti was looking down on me.  I saw hundreds of eyes, full of optimism and hope for a better tomorrow recognizing that having a strong education can put you on a path to a better life.  These children, like other Haitian children across the country, want an education and are willing to try despite the odds against them.

It’s inspiring to see so many children, teachers, and national leaders committed to making much needed investments in Haiti’s next generation.  Parents and leaders in the U.S. and Haiti share a common desire to create a high quality education system for all that adequately prepares our children for success in their personal and professional lives. A strong Haiti can be built by a strong education system and a strong ministry of education.  I want to continue being a good partner with President Michel Martelly, Minister Pierre and the entire Haitian government to strengthen the nation, one child at a time.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education